Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Consciousness

BOND: By definition this conversation that we're having is about black leadership, not about leadership generally. To what degree does race consciousness affect both your work and who you are? Who you were, and who you are today? What does race consciousness have to do with you?

FRANKLIN: Yes. Certainly ever present, given the nature of this country and milieu in which we live. I think here of W.[E.]B. Du Bois' classic trope, From the Souls of Black Folk, "one ever feels his twoness." You know, an American and African. And it is the sense of holding these many elements together is my own now more mature sense of a personal self-consciousness that I'm a member of a particular ethnic group. I have loyalties there. That's from whence I come. I have debts to pay to those who have given and suffered and sacrificed. But I am also, again to use Dr. King's language, "a world citizen, a part of the world house." And I have loyalties there as well. And my -- I think the art is never subsuming necessarily one to the other, but somehow living with a sense that I can serve and advance and enhance both as I move forward.

BOND: What do you say to people who say, "By emphasizing this race, you're only dividing us? You're drawing lines between us. You're separating us. Why do you keep bringing up this race question, why don't you put it behind you? Get over it."

FRANKLIN: I just think that it simply would be counter-factual and counterintuitive to ignore the ever-present reality. Again, Du Bois, "the presence of the color line" now in the twenty-first century. We can't pretend that that's not a problem, not a challenge. And smart, mature, confident people take on the hard questions and issues. They don't ignore race or gender or sexual orientation. They take them on. They address them. They find ways to reconcile. They find ways to respect difference, to tolerate difference. Again, in the course of trying to facilitate everyone experiencing the fullest of their own human potentials, because theologically speaking, I regard the presence of potential in every human soul as a profound and sacred thing, as a gift from God. And my obligation then -- not option, obligation -- is to work to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to explore and to develop them.

And hence, part of what I saw you all doing as you took on Bull Conner and the segregationists, mean-spirited police in Birmingham and other places, was, you know, both certainly to advance the cause of freedom and eliminate racism but at a more profound level philosophically, theologically, was to enable that gentleman who was really stifling his own capacity for experiencing all of the goodness of life, to set him free to do that. Now that's a very ambitious and very difficult enterprise but back to the question of vision, that's the vision that I think propels me as I go forward. And so race is, reckoning with race is an obligation. We have to deal with that.

BOND: Does race affect you in your presentation? You're speaking to an all-black crowd here, an integrated crowd, an all-white crowd here. How does race figure into these three?

FRANKLIN: Well, one of the things I've learned especially from feminist scholars and critical theorists is you know, you never escape your skin. You know, mind, idea, spirit, soul are all sort of empackaged and I have to reckon with my own social location and social identity. I am a black male heterosexual Christian and on and on, and other people have other packages, and the radical love ethic of Jesus for me means loving and affirming all the other packages, all the other people. And so I sort of carry that sense of consciousness into whichever audience I might happen to address.

I am able to call upon a very familiar symbol set when I'm in an African-American audience as I persuade -- I like your way, that verb -- as I persuade and exhort and challenge people to, to actualize themselves. But part of that agenda, even in black church audiences, is challenging people not to be too parochial -- not to hide, not to take refuge in a way that ignores and negates other peoples and other cultures. So in that setting, I'm sort of affirming the strengths of black churches, families, individuals, affirming the souls of black folk, but also saying, "There's a larger world out there, folks, don't forget. Go out there and experience it. Go and visit and see the museums of Rome and Paris. Go and taste the fruits of Tahiti," and the challenging them not to think "I'm an American, I'm a black American, this is my home, this is where I belong, and that's the end of the game." No, absolutely not. That's not what Dr. King -- that's not the legacy he leaves us.

As he says, and I'll use a fancy term, "our challenge is to de-parochialize ourselves" and part of what I try to do in my seminary is to deparochialize these young black seminarians, so that on one hand, they are skilled leaders of black congregations; that's important. "I want you to know how to preach and administer and counsel. But at the same time, I want you to be a -- to cross boundaries. And the kids in your congregation may never do that unless they see you do it first. So pastor, you have to take the risk. You have to go to the meetings in the other neighborhoods. You have to be present in city hall and the state legislature to represent the interests of your children." And as they watch you move from your safe, comfortable space where you could spend all your life doing good, important work, but as they see this as an important agenda of yours to move out into the public square, I think they will think, "We have permission to do that, too. We have the confidence to operate in that larger context on the world stage as well."

BOND: Is it possible that -- I know it's possible you can place too great an emphasis on race but here's a quote from William Allen. He says, "Thinking in terms of race or gender is a danger. Until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces all of us, we're going to continue to harm this country." I asked you a moment ago about division, and [you] gave the perfect answer, but is there a danger in being too black, too often, too much?

FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think that that is the danger, is that it, in fact, strangles the possibility for the full fruition of one's own identity. I think when people reify or make sacred their particularity, for me, getting back to my theological toolbox, that's sin. That's an offense to God. That is wrong. And, you know, this is not popular to say to friends who are black nationalists, who want a separate community and separate nation, and yet I can attend a black nationalist meeting -- I go to the Nation of Islam meetings on occasion, listen in on what's going on -- and affirm the good that's at work in that project. This sort of effort to redeem people who are lost and confused and unaware of the African identity, yes, there's something -- there's an important moment there. There's an important season for affirming one's particularity. I'm black and I'm proud, and yes -- because there are others who would argue there's never a moment or season for that kind of self-celebration-- I vigorously disagree. I think part of the beauty of America is the possibility for all the cultures and peoples to sort of have their moment, to have their season, to express distinctiveness, and I hope thereby to enrich the larger body politic. So yes, it is a danger and for me, it's more than simply regrettable from a social or psychological perspective. Theologically it's a bad place to be.

BOND: Does race place a burden on you that it doesn't place on, say, the president of the Candler School of Theology? Does he or she not face a burden that you do or a responsibility that you do? How does race guide you in that sense?

FRANKLIN: Well, there certainly is a sense --

BOND: Or obligate you, how does it obligate you?

FRANKLIN: Yeah, well, there I think this sense of connectedness with those who continue to struggle. Those who are deprived in significant ways of opportunity in participating in the larger American experiment where I feel that I've been blessed to have certain opportunities and see the possibilities, the vision, the larger vision that lies beyond. Part of my obligation is to ensure that I can maximize the number of -- especially children, who might not otherwise have that experience, to ensure that they do. And so there's a kind of obligation to include, to sort of pull up and elevate and expose in a way that I don't sense that my colleagues, white colleagues in majority institutions, necessarily go about with a day-by-day sense that that's their agenda.

I mean, in a way I often feel a bit of envy because they're able to focus on their agenda, fundraising and building an institution, and whereas I sort of get called on by the local YMCA to go talk to a group of at-risk teenagers. Well, that's really not in my job description. But I've got to do that. And I mean, while I'm doing that I'm not at the Rotary Club or I'm at having a power lunch with someone downtown. And there are a host of other kind of responsibilities of that sort, that because I do understand the importance of race and connectedness and kinship and village, nurture -- there's things I have to do because I am now, whether I like it or not, I am a leader, a kind of a person who carries a certain mantle in that community.